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HIV, AIDS, and Kaposi’s Sarcoma

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Picture of Less Common Skin Cancers Kaposi's sarcoma (KS) is a type of cancer that mainly affects the skin, mouth, and lymph nodes -- infection-fighting glands -- but can also affect other organs such as the lungs and gastrointestinal tract. KS was once rare, only affecting older men of Eastern European or Mediterranean background, young African men, or people who had organ transplants. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection has now become the most common cause of Kaposi's sarcoma.

Due to weakened immune systems, people with HIV are more likely to develop certain cancers. AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is a later stage of HIV infection where most severe cases of KS occur. Surprisingly, though, KS of the skin can also occur earlier in infection. It is a sign the immune system is being suppressed. The good news is that anti-HIV drugs have caused an 80% to 90% drop in the rate of KS cases since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Also treating the virus itself is the best way to treat KS, especially early on.

How Kaposi's Sarcoma Develops

Researchers have discovered that Kaposi's sarcoma is caused by a herpes virus, called Human Herpes Virus 8 (HHV-8). Affecting eight times more men than women, Kaposi's sarcoma may spread through sexual contact. However, this is not known for certain. Keeping your immune system strong with antiretroviral therapy (called HAART) is the best-known way to prevent Kaposi's sarcoma.

Kaposi's sarcoma creates tumors below skin surfaces and in membranes of the mouth, nose, anus, or eyes. It can spread to the lungs, liver, stomach, intestines, or lymph nodes. This involves a process called angiogenesis, where tiny new blood vessels form.

Symptoms of Kaposi's Sarcoma

The most visible signs of Kaposi's sarcoma are lesions on the skin, which are not life threatening.

  • These are flat and painless, aren't itchy, and don't drain.
  • They appear as red or purple spots on white skin and bluish, brownish, or black on dark skin.
  • They may grow into raised bumps or grow together. Unlike bruises, they don't turn white when you press on them.
  • In some people, these growths change slowly. In others, new spots may show up each week.

If KS spreads elsewhere, it can cause other symptoms and can be life threatening. These are symptoms that may develop:

  • Trouble eating or swallowing
  • Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain from internal bleeding and blockages
  • Severe swelling in your arms, legs, face, or scrotum
  • Serious coughing or shortness of breath
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